The Orchid Named for an Insect

Crane fly (Platytipula sp.)  ~ photo by artyangel/Pixabay

One recent February day, the temperature refused to rise above 28°F, and ice still lurked in the shadows. Two days later, the temperature had risen to 50°, and the ice was gone. Two days after that, I found the first of what would become dozens of over-sized and long-legged insects lollygagging around the outside walls and window screens of my home.

For years after moving to Texas, I called them mosquito hawks, and believed their purpose in life was to eat mosquitos. Eventually, I learned the truth; they’re crane flies, and if they eat anything at all after hatching, it’s unlikely to be anything more than a bit of nectar. After emerging from their larval stage at winter’s end, their only purpose is to mate, lay eggs, and die — all within the space of a very few days. 

Some people consider crane flies a nuisance, particularly when they find their way indoors, but they don’t bite, they don’t carry disease, and they make perfectly safe play toys for cats.

Oddly enough, crane flies also have offered their common name to an orchid  I discovered deep in the east Texas woods.

Buds of the Crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor)

The Crane-fly Orchid (Tipularia discolor), is a perennial terrestrial orchid, and the only species of the genus Tipularia found in North America. In part because of the length of its nectar spurs, it was named for its supposed resemblance to the insect.

Scattered throughout the southeastern United States, the orchids prefer the humus-rich soils of deciduous forests or areas with acid soils, such as oak-pine forests. This group was thriving in deep shade beneath a beech tree in the Big Thicket of east Texas.

When I found the plants last August, their leaves already had disappeared, as they do prior to the orchid’s bloom. The leaf emerges in fall, then withers before flower clusters appears in mid-to-late summer. I’ve never found the oval-shaped leaves, but with luck I might find them this month; with purple undersides and purple spots on top, they should be easy to identify.

The leafless flowering stems, which bloom from the bottom up, can be as much as 20 inches tall; these were somewhat shorter, measuring an average of 12 inches. The flowers’ less than vibrant color, combined with deep shade from the trees and mottled sunlight, made photos somewhat difficult, but summer’s coming, and I may have another opportunity. 

Unfortunately, while we can count on an abundance of craneflies each spring, cranefly orchids don’t bloom every year. Perhaps, if this group is taking the year off, another will be waiting.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Flurry of Summer Snowiness

As with so many flowers, the snowy orchid, Platanthera nivea, rewards attention at every stage of life. From tightly clustered buds to bright white flowers, it shines in moist woodlands, bogs, and pine barrens, where it also is known as the  ‘bog torch.’ Common in Florida and other southeastern states, it’s considered rare in Texas, which lies at the western edge of its range.

As its buds develop, dark green flower stalks, perpendicular to the stem, become more obvious.

Soon, the flowers’ spurs emerge. These long, hollow tubes contain nectar; as butterflies and skippers probe for nectar, the pollinia — cohesive masses of pollen typical of orchids and milkweeds — attach to the proboscis and are transferred to other flowers.

As the plants develop, the combination of buds and fully opened flowers can be charming. Because they bloom from the bottom up, the familiar torch-like shape soon appears.

Each opened flower reveals a corolla of two petals and one modified petal called a labellum, or lip, which attracts pollinating insects. Unlike many orchids, the lip of the snowy orchid points upward, rather than twisting 180 degrees to point downward and serve as a ‘landing pad’ for pollinators. The botanical term for the process that results in a downward-pointing lip is resupination; because that twist doesn’t take place in either the snowy orchid or grass pinks, their blooms are described as ‘non-resupinate.’

While butterflies and skippers are the snowy orchid’s primary pollinators, spiders, ants, and other insects lurk among its flowers. Here, a katydid nymph hangs out, its white-banded antennae a nice complement to the emerging blooms.

As more flowers open, the raceme takes on an increasingly cylindrical shape and its fragrance — a light scent that some describe as citrusy — becomes detectable. Quite often, unopened buds and spent flowers are found together: the cycle of life demonstrated in a single plant.

I suspect these orchids still are blooming, along with the plants that often accompany them. Tomorrow, I’ll know whether that suspicion is warranted.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Sky-Blue Pink

Grass pink ~ Calopogon tuberosus

 

Many years ago, a fellow blogger used the phrase ‘sky-blue-pink’ to describe something in one of her posts. I no longer remember what she was describing — a sunrise? a flower? a piece of clothing? — but I’ve never forgotten the phrase.

It usually comes to mind when I see the Belt of Venus, but it also seems appropriate for this grass pink orchid framed against a perfectly blue sky. By the time I return to the Big Thicket, these orchids will be near the end of their bloom period, but new delights will take their place as the cycle of the seasons continues.

 

Comments always are welcome.